Is there a gap between awareness and action when it comes to inclusive design?
DESIGN RESEARCH | UX/UI DESIGN
Inclusive design is a design methodology characterized by diversity, variability, and complexity in order to create artefacts that can be accessed by everyone and foster a sense of belonging. By including people with different ranges of perspectives – whether it be inherent features, temporary circumstances, or socio-cultural aspects – into design decisions, the barriers of participation can be lowered allowing everyone to equally take part in society.
However, by looking at recently produced design artefacts, there is a lack of consideration of human diversity and contextual aspects notably. The created products and services oftentimes seem to cause mismatches between individuals and their environments. Designers are either unaware of the needs of people with different capabilities and backgrounds or they do not know how to accommodate them into their designs.
Since inclusion is a topic becoming more important in different areas all over the world, it is also an important subject in design. The relevance, aspirations and practices of inclusive design are being discussed in lectures, at conferences, and online. This general interest in the topic led me and 2 other colleagues of my Master to the question whether there is a gap between awareness and action when it comes to inclusive design. To answer this question and explore the reasons for lacking inclusion, we conducted a case study with 25 designers in the digital field and showcased our insights and recommendations in a website that we developed to educate designers about the topic of inclusive design.
At the beginning of this project, we started exploring the topic of Inclusive Design, looking for an area of intervention where we could develop a research question and later on externalise our insights in a visual format. We started by doing literature review of academic and scientific papers about this topic.
The development towards inclusive design started in the middle of the 20th century with “barrier-free” design which aimed for removing obstacles in the built environment for physically disabled people (Institute for Human Centered Design, n.d.). Since then, the emphasis gradually shifted away from providing special treatments for people with physical disabilities towards a design approach that aims for physically, cognitively, and emotionally appropriate designs for everyone.
Throughout this development, several authors attempted to provide frameworks for designers that implement inclusive design methods into the design process. Robinson et al. (2000), for example, developed a three-staged model of a product development strategy: define the problem and intended target users; develop a solution that considers able-bodied and motion-impaired users; evaluate the solution with the target users. This model clearly shows the separation between physically abled and disabled people and thus, represents the prevalent perspective on human diversity at that time. However, as we kept researching, we realized that there was a notable list of research and resources based on this topic, but we felt that there was a lack of application in the design field, which made us develop the following question: Is there a gap between awareness and action when it comes to inclusive design?
We conducted 25 interviews with digital designers to discuss the relevance of inclusive design and analyse whether they implement certain methods and strategies in their work. We developed an inclusive design awareness framework that we used as a foundation for our interview questions. Each of the phases of the framework – Research, Design and Implementation, and Validation – were discussed with the designers by asking predefined questions to investigate which of the methods and considerations were applied and which ones kept being disregarded. Afterwards, we determined the level of knowledge and general interest in the topic and asked the participants to reflect on the reasons why they did not apply inclusive design methods at certain stages in their projects.
14 of our 25 participants were able to explain the concept of inclusive design in their own words.
However, the majority did not apply it in their designs. The reasons for lacking implementation of inclusive design methods varied to a great extent. Some of the designers understood the relevance but stated that there is a limitation of resources which lead to creating products that do not meet inclusive design guidelines. The reasons mentioned are the following:
- Lack of time and economic resources
- Restrictions by clients/guidelines
- Inclusive design wasn't a priority for the clients
- Lack of resources to approach diverse people & communities
Others pointed out the challenges related to inclusive design and the difficulty to meet all the guidelines:
- Impossible to include everyone
- Inclusive design is not part of their design process
- Difficult to implement
- There's a conflict between aesthetics and accessibility
However, many of the participants did not consider different aspects in their design decisions because there is either a lack of knowledge or a general misunderstanding of the concept. These designers mentioned the following reasons:
- Lack of knowledge
- They already had a specific target group for their project
- Their project was unsuitable
- Some claimed it's the developer's responsibility
After this assessment we analysed our findings and verified a correlation between awareness but lack of application. We then decided to showcase our research in a website format that would be use as a tool were designers can not only see our study, but also learn about inclusive design and have a series of resources related to inclusivity that they can apply in their designs.
An Interactive Exhibition
After finishing our assessment, we sketched the structure on the website based on the structure on the case study we developed and showed it to different designers to see if the structure made sense to them.
UI & Visual Design
When we prototyped the architecture of the website, we started defining the aesthetics, fonts, and guidelines of the website, as well as developing the animations of the UI elements that we created. The website would be a 2D flat style with vectorial illustrations that their shapes had symbolism related to the topic of inclusive design.
For the website we used different inclusive functionalities, like having in it in multiple languages, not using pure black and pure white, use of colors suitable for colorblind people, and creating a dark and light mode so that users can adjust the amount of light of the interface.
High Fidelity Prototypes
We then developed the final prototypes of the website and tested it with different designers to iterate over it.
The conducted case study served to investigate whether there is a gap between awareness and action when it comes to inclusive design. Our investigation showed that many of the inclusive design principles remain disregarded throughout the design process even though most of the participants were able to explain the concept of inclusive design. This indicates that there is a gap between knowledge and application, but more importantly, we realized there is still a vast number of designers that do not fully understand the concept.
I believe that the compilation of recommendations and resources we provide on our website can help designers integrate inclusive design strategies in their current design processes. But first, designers need to understand the diversity of their users and their responsibility to create designs that give everyone a sense of belonging and inclusion. This research will not disabuse all designers from their misconceptions and solve the challenges regarding inclusive design, but it serves as a contribution to the field by providing insights and resources to help them build more inclusive products, because I think that having fully inclusive experiences is right now something utopian within the status-quo we live in.
Team & Role
This project was executed with 2 other digital designers: Bianca Brandner and Luca Kler Lago. This was a personal exploration project that we did during our academic year at the Master Digital Design programme of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, and the duration of the project was of 10 weeks. My contribution for this project was UX/UI design, desk and user research, framework development and leading the interviews.